Advertisement
  1. Bars & Breweries

Bar review: A trip to Saigon Blonde in St. Petersburg is an immersive experience

EVE EDELHEIT | Times Bartender Lucien Chalfoun makes a cocktail at Saigon Blonde in St. Petersburg on Saturday, August 4, 2018. Saigon Blonde is a new high-concept bar with a Vietnam War-era theme, design details and exotic cocktails.
Published Aug. 20, 2018

The space at 265 Central Ave. in downtown St. Petersburg has always seemed out of place. Surrounded by a cigar lounge, restaurants and cocktail bars, its most recent dance-club incarnations never quite meshed with the block's entertainment scene.

So what better successor than a bar so thematically ambitious that fitting into the neighborhood isn't even a consideration?

That bar — the newly opened Saigon Blonde — is already one of the most exciting concepts I've experienced in the Tampa Bay area. It would be a disservice not to pass along the word now, even if there are some kinks to be ironed out.

Saigon Blonde's exterior — a cutaway walkup bar and sidewalk tables with large umbrellas — doesn't betray the visual excitement that awaits inside. If the designers of the queues for theme-park rides worked on a bar, it might look like Saigon Blonde. Its tall double doors lead into a space drenched in color and outfitted with vintage furniture, paper lanterns and reproductions of Vietnam War propaganda posters as wall art. There are detailed murals and Pacific Rim props, from a hanging crocodile to a shark-bitten surfboard and an antique Pachinko machine. No corner is left without an interesting design detail, and the theme is applied so thickly that it transcends kitsch to become an almost immersive experience.

Saigon Blonde is loosely divided into four spaces, each boasting its own unique vibe. Viewing the interior as a whole, there's almost too much to take in. Split it into sections and, wow, it works.

The first has a Polynesian vibe, with a bar that features tiki statues whose eyes and mouths flicker with lights, as if flames burned from within. The ceiling is bamboo and the floor is lined with colorful ceramic tile. Most cocktail spots stock fresh fruit on the bartop; this one has fresh coconuts.

Beyond this area is a spacious lounge outfitted with booths, low tables and wicker peacock chairs. When Saigon Blonde eventually adds food to the menu — rumor has it that a partnership with nearby La V may be in the works — this is probably where customers will dine.

Next up is the expat bar, dimly lit and canopied by an old airplane wing, with hammered copper tables and ammunition belts draped from camo-colored room dividers. It's dark and slightly claustrophobic — a stark departure from the other rooms. The effect is so on-point that you can almost feel the jungle humidity.

Above this bar is a small upstairs loft that was previously used as a DJ booth. Now it's a dark and semiprivate balcony overlooking the colorful interior.

I haven't even mentioned the drinks. Aside from an outstanding spirits selection, Saigon Blonde also makes fairly inventive cocktails.

The menu appears to be an area in transition, as the bar figures out what works.

An example of something that didn't: cocktails served in coconut half-shells (logistically challenging). Something that did: the Ring of Fire, made with the Street Pumas blended scotch, Rhum Clément Créole Shrubb, Joto Junmai Nigori sake, simple syrup, bitters, house-made "hellfire water" and Korean chili-thread garnish.

Saigon Blonde's appeal to exoticism may turn off those who see it as a romanticization of a dark time in American and Vietnamese history, but when viewed with a broader lens, it's a fantastic interpretation of a (mostly) imagined era, astonishingly lush with color and design. It may or may not be your thing, but a visit is mandatory. You need to see this one.

Contact Justin Grant at jg@saintbeat.com. Follow @WordsWithJG.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Two of the creative drinks are the Loaded Bear Claw and the Blame it on the Juice. Photo courtesy of Geneva Johnson
    The venue near USF features the creative cocktails and drink specials needed for a go-to college bar. | Bar review
  2. Nov. 7• Arts & Entertainment
    Lullaby Rye Courtesy of Geneva Johnson
    The unique tasting-room selection should help raise a brewery’s profile. | Local craft beer of the week
  3. Oct. 31• Arts & Entertainment
    Bike Trail Pale Ale Courtesy of Eric Richardson
    St. Pete brewery taps into the lighter side of ale. | Local craft beer of the week
  4. Oct. 31• Arts & Entertainment
    Cowboy Corral Bar & Grill is a good spot for enjoying truly cheap drinks, playing pool or watching the race on Sundays. The Clearwater bar has a cozy dining area and offers a full menu filled with Tex-Mex fare. Photo courtesy of Geneva Johnson
    Cowboy Corral Bar & Grill brings a little faux Texas to town. | Bar review
  5. Hard Pumpkin Cider, Two Henrys Brewing Company Justin Grant  |  tbt*
    The Plant City product drinks like a spiced cider with a side of pumpkin pie. | Local craft beer of the week
  6. SpookEasy Lounge is in a room above The Stone Soup Company. Photos courtesy of Geneva Johnson
    Tampa’s booze-free bar spills the tea on kava and kratom. | Bar review
  7. At The Tiki Cove, you don’t need too much imagination to place your mind and mood at an actual beach. JUSTIN GRANT  |  Justin Grant
    The Tiki Cove is a Florida-only novelty that anyone passing through will be sure to enjoy. | Bar review
  8. Try I Am The Walrus Berliner Weisse ib draft at Hidden Springs Ale Works, or look for it in cans at your local quality beer shop. JUSTIN GRANT  |  Justin Grant
    This is Florida, so some of our autumn brews fall outside the paradigm. | Local beer of the week
  9. Oct. 10• Arts & Entertainment
    Wedge Cut American Wheat Ale, Cigar City Brewing Justin Grant  | tbt*
    The Tampa brewery scores again with the limited-release Wedge Cut. | Craft beer of the week
  10. 7th + Grove is split into two discrete spaces. The corner space is a bright and upbeat restaurant. Next door is the club. Courtesy of Ashley Canay and Ashley Meyer
    With Southern cuisine, strong cocktails and DJ-led events, the club and restaurant lives up to its motto: “Eat. Vibe. Flourish.” | Bar review
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement